Zelda Popkin, An American Jewish Author

Zelda Popkin (1898-1983), my grandmother, was a novelist whose most successful book, The Journey Home, sold nearly a million copies—enough to make any academic like myself envious. Her books, which include a series of mystery novels starring an independent-minded woman detective, one of the earliest American novels to focus on the Holocaust, and the first novel in English about the Israeli struggle for independence and survival in 1948, provide interesting insights into how American women and American Jews faced the great issues of the mid-twentieth century. Out of personal interest, I am doing research on some aspects of Popkin’s career. This Web page is intended to help others who may want to learn more about Zelda Popkin’s career and her books.

Zelda Popkin archives update: In August 2007, the Popkin family donated a collection of Zelda Popkin's personal letters to her son and daughter-in-law (Richard H. and Juliet Popkin) to the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which also houses Zelda Popkin's literary papers.  This series of around 300 letters spans the years from 1943 to 1983 and thus covers most of Zelda Popkin's literary career. 

Zelda Popkin’s books

Popkin published six detective novels from 1938 to 1944. The first five formed a series with a woman detective, Mary Carner, as their protagonist. While Mary Carner was not the first woman detective to feature in such a series, she was quite liberated for her day: she frequently solved her cases while her husband stayed at home to babysit the couple's daughter. The paperback versions of Popkin's detective novels appeared in Dell Books' popular 'map-back' series, with lurid front covers and back covers offering maps of the key locations in the stories.

The Mary Carner detective novels (mysteries featuring Mary Carner, set in the eastern United States)

Death Wears a White Gardenia (Lippincott, 1938; Dell pb, 1938); German translation (Rendezvous nach Ladenschluss, dtv) 1992
  Murder in the Mist (Lippincott, 1940; Dell pb, 1940); German translation (Die Tote Nebenan, dtv); French translation (Meurtre dans la brume, Metailie) 1994
Dead Man’s Gift (Lippincott, 1941; Dell pb, 1941, 1947); German translation (Ein teuflisches Testament, dtv) 1995; French translation (Le cadeau du mort, Metailie) 1999
  No Crime for a Lady (Lippincott, 1942; Dell pb 1942, 1945); German translation (Die Dame mordet nicht, dtv) 1996
  Time Off for Murder (Lippincott, 1943; Dell pb); German translation (Karrierefrauen leben schneller, dtv); French translation (Conges pour meurtre, Metailie)

Mystery novel not featuring Mary Carner:

  • All six of these detective novels appeared in German translation in the 1990s, and three were translated into French during the same period.
  • Novels, 1945-1951


    The Journey Home (Lippincott, 1945; Dell pb 1945): the story of the encounter between a soldier returning from overseas and a young career woman, set against the dramatic background of a violent train wreck (based on Popkin’s personal experience as a survivor of the highly publicized wreck of the Congresssional Limited in 1943). The Journey Home sold nearly a million copies; letters to Popkin show that it was well received by soldiers who had served in World War II. The book received the honor of a negative review by the young and then largely unknown Saul Bellow in one of the early issues of Commentary magazine.
      Small Victory (Lippincott, 1947): based on Popkin’s observations in the post-World War II displaced persons’ camps, which she visited on behalf of the American Red Cross in the winter of 1945-46. The principal characters are American gentiles, but this was one of the earliest American novels in which Jewish survivors of the Holocaust played significant roles.
      Walk Through the Valley (Lippincott, 1949): the story of a woman who has to recover her independence and make a new life for herself after the sudden death of her husband. This novel strongly reflects Popkin’s personal experience after the death of her husband, Louis Popkin, in 1943.
    Quiet Street (Lippincott, 1951; Bison Books pb, 2002): Popkin visited the newly established Jewish state of Israel in the fall of 1948, just after the declaration of independence. This novel was the first American work of fiction devoted to the subject. It is of particular interest because the story is largely told through women characters.

    Novels, 1968-1975

    Herman Had Two Daughters (Lippincott, 1968; Dell pb 1970): Popkin reworked the story of her early life into this novel about a Jewish family in small-town America in the first half of the twentieth century. This book was her first major commercial success since The Journey Home and enabled her to enjoy a renewed career until old age and illness stopped her from writing.
      A Death of Innocence (Lippincott, 1971): the story of a middle-class mother confronting a child who has become involved in a serious crime. A Death of Innocence was made into a television movie in the early 1970s and was translated into Spanish (Inocencia violada, 1972).
      Dear Once (Lippincott, 1975; New American Library pb, 1975): based in part on family stories and Popkin’s experiences living in New York and Montreal.

    Sources and Bibliography


    Information compiled by Jeremy D. Popkin, Professor of History, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506, 17 Sept. 2007